In my previous blogs, I discussed the heavy bag and its importance in martial arts training while also giving a few tips on areas that a novice should pay attention to when training with one.
As useful as the heavy bag can be in aiding a martial artist to hone his/her skills, not everyone is a martial artist, or even remotely interested in martial arts. There are people who never expect to get into a fight, to them the ideas of getting into a ring or ever having to defend against an attacker are foreign ones and as a result there is no concern with training their bodies in order to prepare for such situations.
For some, not being interested in fighting does not necessarily mean not being interested in martial arts training. Martial arts workout routines continue to become associated with total physical fitness and therefore continue to appeal to those who seek methods of getting into shape and maintaining good health and well-being.
Consequently, I am going to discuss the health benefits of martial arts training and by extension training with a heavy bag. Before I begin I would like to state that I am not a qualified physician, or an expert in the field of health and wellness, however, I have been a practitioner of both soft (internal) and hard (external) styles of martial arts for sometime now and during this time I have had the opportunity to grasp some knowledge of the health benefits that one can accrue from these methods of training.
STRENGTHENING AND TONING MUSCLES
Gaining muscle tone comes gradually with exercise. Martial arts training encompasses many effective exercises. Whether a martial artist is an athlete who trains for the ring, or a person who trains solely for physical and mental development, the different styles of martial arts offer forms of movement which over time increase the body’s range of motion and assist in developing major muscle groups.
Building muscular strength and endurance is a key factor in every form of martial arts, and rightly should be a key focus of every serious martial artist. Many systems do stress position and leverage over brute force, however, even within such systems of fighting a practitioner usually learns that a balance of strong muscles combined with the knowledge and experience of gaining leverage is an edge over an opponent lacking in one of these two fields.
The very basics of muscle building teach that through being stressed out by intense exercise, muscle fibers tear and then gradually heal. Once these torn fibers are healed the muscle is rejuvenated, and repeating this process ensures continuous strengthening of the muscle.
Training with a heavy bag provides a form of resistance which pressures the muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones. This gradually burns fat and toughens the body. Continuous heavy bag training will tone the muscles and help build a lean athletic figure.
Cardio vascular fitness as well as the ability of the muscles to endure strain for the full length of a particular physical activity are both developed through martial arts training. From my experience some styles are tougher on the body and push one’s endurance to the limit more than others. Personally I find wrestling to be by far the most exhausting martial art and overall physical activity that I have ever engaged in.
Being versatile in training is never a bad thing. While some schools may stress on tradition and teach specific methods of conditioning, cross training always yields positive results. Integrating time tested forms of exercise such as skipping, running, swimming, and cycling into martial arts training will rapidly improve a person’s cardiovascular and muscular fitness.
Striking a heavy bag is far from simply just a workout for the arms and legs. It is a dynamic exercise which involves movement of the feet, ankles, knees, hips, elbows, shoulders, spine as well as muscle groups within the upper and lower parts of the body. Hitting a heavy bag with explosive strikes will increase the heart rate, promote blood circulation and naturally increase the body’s demand for oxygen.
As mentioned earlier, I am not a professional in the medical field and am in no way an expert on mental health. I won’t attempt to come across as a learned physician by writing a poor man’s version of how the mood boosting chemicals in the brain work and how they are affected by exercise.
I am unable to give a detailed account of what martial arts and exercises can do for synaptic transmission. The fact is that I am a layperson on the subject and like most people not in the field of medicine and mental health, my knowledge is limited and my education on the subject is ongoing.
What I do know is that whether through firsthand experience or information shared by others who have carried out research, most of us have become aware that exercise helps reduce stress as well as symptoms of depression and anxiety while at the same time improving cognitive function.
Many people who exercise regularly, are familiar with feeling mentally and physically exhausted after a day of work, yet pushing themselves through a workout for at least one hour. As a natural result there is a feeling of being completely relaxed yet re energized. The feeling is almost like the body and mind simultaneously screaming “Thank you!”
On more than one occasion I have met people in stressful fields of work such as teaching, accounting, and banking who made a lifestyle habit of going to a boxing gym after work not because they had intentions of winning competitions or becoming professional boxers, but because they found that being pushed through anaerobic exercises along with releasing the days worth of accumulated stress through boxing drills was all the therapy that they needed after a tough day at the office.
Neijia (Internal Martial Arts)
Different types of martial arts have unique methods of rejuvenating the mind and the body. Some styles may focus on explosive and high impact movements, while others may take a more meditative approach. These meditative styles may use harmonious movements in order to bend, stretch and relax the body. Such styles are common in Chinese martial arts and are known as “nei jia quan” or Internal martial arts.
Styles such as Taijiquan (Grand ultimate boxing), Baguazhang (Eight trigram palm), Xingyiquan (Mind and heart boxing) and Liuhebafa (Water boxing) all wear the label of “nei jia quan” and involve a combination of exercises which develop the muscles yet also focus on internal harmony of mind and breath.
Practicing other “harder” martial arts will promote mental well-being however, It is my opinion that the internal styles are second to none when it comes to exploring the mind/body connection while also improving mental and physical wellness.
Most associate heavy bag training solely with the more aggressive striking arts however, as an enthusiast with a decade and some experience of training in different styles of Taijiquan, I think that the heavy bag is also useful for developing skill in the internal arts. In Taijiquan we are taught that pushing and pulling an opponent will put him/her off balance, this principle is not unlike that of any other grappling art.
In the absence of a training partner, a heavy bag measuring 5-6 feet (for adults) can become a training dummy for practicing mindful yet explosive grappling techniques.
Many people view the internal arts simply as “health” arts and ignore some more vigorous methods of training which exists within them, I think that having some understanding of the fighting aspect of these styles opens the door to understanding deeper concepts such as structure, managing energy during vigorous movement and manifesting internal power.
I also think that becoming familiar with the martial aspect of the internal arts inevitably broadens the players understanding of the ability to use the practical and theoretical aspects of these arts to benefit overall health.
For more information on the Heavy Bag, and for related products which may be useful, please see my article on Martial Arts Training Bags.
WALK TALLER, FEEL BETTER
When I was younger, I had the privilege of learning basic Chanquan aka Shaolin kung fu. From this wonderful art I learned stretches and exercises for conditioning the body and mind which help me up to the very present day. In my view, the history and philosophy of Chan Buddhism that I was taught was just as valuable as the physical exercises.
One principle which stuck with me is that the internal and the external are not unlike the body and the head in that one could not function without the other, therefore the two should not be treated as separate structures. In many cases we see depression and low self-esteem manifest themselves in body language and general posture.
While self-reflection and self-rumination may work, sometimes it can be an almost impossible task when the mind is clouded and weighed down by anxiety, obsessive thoughts, depression and lack of motivation. Sometimes sitting still just won’t help. According to Chan philosophy, life is everywhere, and finding enlightenment does not necessarily have to come through sitting in the lotus posture.
The body was made to move, and movement (or lack of it) affects everything from mood to blood circulation and the immune system. Martial arts training is based on natural body movements. Advancing, retreating, jumping, crouching, making expansive movements, small subtle movements and integrating toughness and softness into movement are fundamentals in almost every system of fighting.
The traditional Chinese arts of self cultivation teach that through harmonizing breath and movement, the heat generated from the lower abdomen area (Qi) warms the body fluids and encourages proper circulation (Jing), this in turn lifts the spirit and gives an increased sense of well-being (Shen). Cultivation of these three “treasures” is the key to good health.
Overall, it doesn’t matter what tradition or cultural philosophy you subscribe to. The internal and external benefits of exercising regularly are common to all, and martial arts training can be a complete form of exercise. For those who are looking for the total workout through martial arts, making heavy bag training part of your routine is absolutely a step in the right direction.
Below is a list of books on martial arts related exercises for health and fitness that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in incorporating martial arts into their home workout.
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The Shaolin Workout extracts a lifetime of Shaolin training and wisdom into a 28-day workout plan. The author Shifu Shì Yánmíng is a 34th generation warrior monk hailing from the Henan Shaolin Temple in China which is regarded by many as the birthplace of Chan Buddhism. Sifu Shì Yánmíng is a world-renowned teacher of Shaolin martial arts, and has been sought out by many for his knowledge, wisdom and insight on utilizing martial arts for physical and mental well being.
In 1992, Sifu Shì Yánmíng defected to the U.S.A. and eventually established The USA Shaolin Temple in Manhattan where he teaches to this day. He has trained hundreds of students, some of which have been celebrities. He is highly respected by international film stars such as Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat, and Michelle Yeoh and is respectfully addressed by them as Sifu.
For me this book has been a very useful supplemental in training as well as a guide during a period where I was learning Longfist without the guidance of a regular coach. I find the step by step instructions easy to follow and the exercises useful for building one’s overall, strength, flexibility and muscle control.
The exercises can be adapted to suit people of all age groups and different levels of fitness and ability. Complementary to Sifu Shì Yánmíng’s training exercises are his “Meditation” intervals in between chapters which give positive and inspiring insights on life.
This book does not explore the combat and self defense aspect of martial arts, but can be useful to those who are interested in exploring the physical, mental and emotional benefits of martial arts training.
Train Like a Fighter Get MMA Fit Without Taking a Hit is a book which contains instructions on exercise routines and nutrition which can help you reach the fitness level that professional fighters strive for. The author Cat Zingano is an accomplished professional MMA fighter, who upon her departure from the UFC, was # 7 in the official UFC bantamweight rankings.
Within the book are instructions on various exercises as well as monthly training programs consisting of routines built from the exercises taught. Instructions are given in detail and there are colorful illustrations to guide the user. Most of the exercises presented are body weight training, while some may require small pieces of exercise equipment such as small dumbbells, a medicine ball, and a kettlebell . There are also useful heavy bag exercises which are easy to follow.
The information presented may not be anything new or revolutionary to some, especially those who are familiar with martial arts cross training and/or compete in combat sports , however to those who have little to no martial arts/combat sport background and are looking to transition from their regular fitness routine into something more intense, this book can provide guidance on how to do so.
Train Like a Fighter Get MMA Fit Without Taking a Hit can be useful to those who have no interest in the contact aspect of martial arts but are looking for new and challenging ways to work out.